Over the past couple of years, one of my son’s favorite bedtime stories has been about a character I named Matt (see my post “Crush #1 and Other Bedtime Stories” from July ’10). Having a friend with superhuman farts or a friend who belts out ’80s pop tunes while beating up some of the other characters isn’t exactly based on my growing up experience. In the case of Matt, his character was one that always over-explained things — like why 2+2=4 — and wanted to play Canasta in the middle of a basketball game.
Buried in all the ridiculousness and hyperbole around the character was a real-life friend named Matt, whom I met twenty years ago this month. Matt was in my African American History graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of ’92. I took the course on the advice of my eventual advisor Joe Trotter, whom I had met that spring at my first academic conference at Lincoln University (see my “Meeting Joe Trotter” post from May ’12). I decided to take the course because my history grad program at Pitt didn’t have anything close to a course on Black historiography. In fact, I couldn’t find a course that would even approximate a graduate seminar in African American studies at the University of Pittsburgh in ’92.
I was one of seven students in the course, with two women (one of whom was Black and in her thirties) and three young White males, though not as young as twenty-two year-old me. And there was Matt, the first Black male I’d seen in either my own or Carnegie Mellon’s History PhD who wasn’t me. What I noticed immediately was the fact that in our Tuesday 9:30-12:30 course, Matt was the only one who spent the first two hours leafing through the one or two books and five articles we were to read every single week. Leafing, because as it turned out, Matt had already finished all of his coursework for the doctorate. He was auditing the course, and rarely read anything for the seminar in advance.
That’s what I learned when we had our first lunch together in the cafeteria of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where I could get a cheap lunch before or after shooting hoops. It was then that I also noticed something peculiar about Matt. He chewed his food with his mouth half-open, where if I looked too closely, I’d notice the mix of saliva, wild rice, green beans and chicken breast being crushed by his raptor-like teeth. I never knew anyone over twelve, much less someone approaching forty, who didn’t know how to chew with their mouth closed until I’d met Matt.
Despite my observation of some weird tendencies, I found my first conversations with Matt to be exhilarating. I simply hadn’t been around anyone in my graduate school experience aside from a professor or two who was as knowledgeable about American and African American history, politics and culture as Matt. That, and the fact that he had worked in the community development corporation world as a community organizer made him an atypical graduate student, even compared to the other older perpetual-student-graduates I’d known over the previous five years.
I learned from our eatery outings — especially after the first Boston Market in Pittsburgh opened in Squirrel Hill in mid-September — that Matt was the younger son of two prominent Black/Afro-Caribbean parents, both of whom were in the social work field, both of whom had doctorates, both of whom were prominent on Pitt’s campus. His father, of course, was also an ordained minister. I could only imagine the kind of pressure that would’ve put on Matt over the years to do something meaningful with his life.
The one political argument that Matt made during the fall presidential election cycle in ’92 was the need for serious campaign finance reform. Remember, this was a good four years before McCain-Feingold, which has since of course been shredded by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Aside from that, most of what we agreed on were issues of interpretation in African American historiography and the fact that two of our classmates, Mark and Mike, were the ultimate brown-nosers. They kissed butt at times like their lives depended on it, leading to heated arguments in our seminar every week. The fact that they thought Fogel and Engelmann’s Time on the Cross (1974) was a great work on slavery said it all on these future neo-cons.
Still, while I found Matt’s contrarian Beavis and Butt-head view of the world interesting at times, I also realized that Matt spent an amazing amount of time talking. At Hillman Library, in front of William Pitt Union, in the halls of Baker Hall, at Boston Market. And as I’d learn later on, there was a great distance between Matt’s interesting and sometimes great ideas and the hard work needed to put them on paper for a committee or to put them in action in his own life.